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ABSTRACT: (160 words) Peggy McIntosh characterized privilege as an “invisible knapsack” of unearned advantages. Although the invisible knapsack is a useful metaphor, the notion of unearned advantage is not readily appreciated, especially in androcentric geek cultures associated with computers, comics, and gaming. After providing brief cultural histories of geekdom and privilege, I ask: Why are some geeks resistant to the notion of privilege? Beyond the observation that privilege often prompts defensiveness and unproductive comparisons, there is a geek-specific reason. Geek identity is informed by the trope of geek triumphalism: early insecurity is superseded by a sense of superiority. Geeks’ intelligence, unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy), and idiosyncratic dress were once targets of ridicule, leading geeks to believe they are without privilege. These same characteristics, later in life, become sources of success and pride, leading them to think they are beyond bias. Nonetheless, even in the seemingly innocuous realm of idiosyncratic dress, bias and privilege exist.
Key words: privilege, geek, feminism, idiosyncrasy, meritocracy
In early 2014, Nate Silver, the analytic whiz behind the site FiveThirtyEight, was talking about the site’s expansion plans now that it had been purchased by ESPN. Silver had gained fame by successfully picking baseball players and electoral winners using savvy quantitative analysis; new staff were hired for their ability to emulate his methods. Although there were some good qualitative journalists at places like The New York Times, Silver thought most analysts, columnists, and pundits were “worthless” practitioners of qualitative and “anecdotal” musings (Dickey, 2014). At FiveThirtyEight, he hoped his hiring would achieve a “clubhouse chemistry” among journalists that were quantitative, rigorous, and empirical. Emily Bell (2014), a senior journalist writing at The Guardian, noted that there were only six women among Silver’s 19-person editorial staff: “By the sophisticated math of this pundit—and Silver hates pundits—that is just under over 30%. Minorities—as, after all, women are a majority—are even more poorly served, at FiveThirtyEight and elsewhere.” Consequently, Bell believed “journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.”
In a subsequent interview, Silver offered two lines of defense. He noted that 85% of applications came from men; “that worries us” and his organization needed to continue to “make sure that we’re looking widely for the best possible candidates.” More interestingly, he found Bell’s critique upsetting because his allusion to “clubhouse chemistry” was just a baseball reference and “the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off” (Silver & Coscarelli, 2014). Silver’s expression of “bro-y” refers to a stereotypically macho culture, and it is related to the neologism “brogrammer,” which become popular in 2010–2012 and describes programmers who fit the stereotype of the frat-boy more so than that of the quiet nerd. Silver explained: “We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece really, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say” (Silver & Coscarelli, 2014).
But others had more to say. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and frequent commenter on geek culture, wrote that Silver’s defense revealed that even if geeks are not “bro-y” in the “‘macho’ jock” way, they are “often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege.” Tufekci wrote that when Silver and his friends “think of male privilege, they are thinking of ‘macho’ jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture.” But this does not mean their own “culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women” (Tufekci, 2014).
Silver’s concept of himself as a “weird nerd” and “outsider,” in opposition to the “bro-y people,” is a common facet of identity among those who call themselves nerds and geeks. This underdog-otherness contributes to the trope of geek triumphalism, as seen in the film Revenge of the Nerds.1 In the movie, the misfits of the Tri-Lamb fraternity and Omega Mu sorority use their weirdness and intellect to beat the popular kids in a campus Greek Festival. At their moment of triumph, Lewis and Gilbert announce that they are done feeling ashamed. Gilbert declares: “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior… Well… I’m a nerd, and uh, I’m pretty proud of it.” Geek communities, however, often fail to achieve the diversity of Revenge’s fictional geek Greeks.2 Triumphant geeks, instead, resist imputations of homogeneity, bias, and privilege on the basis of this trope. Those characteristics which once were used to make them feel inferior are now sources of superiority and pride. They believe that being smart and unconventional led to their marginalization in the past, so they understand oppression, and these same attributes allow them to transcend small-mindedness in the present.
Peggy McIntosh (1988/1990) famously characterized privilege as an “invisible weightless knapsack” of unearned advantages relative to others. I use recent discourse among and about geeks to examine why the imputation of privilege is contentious. Just as the debate about “fake geek girls” revealed that geekdom’s boundaries are defined and policed relative to the mainstream, especially the movement of attention (???), geek identity is similarly informed by a relative sense of insecurity and superiority to the mainstream. Many geeks were made to feel inferior when growing up: they felt anything but privileged (Mendick & Francis, 2012). Yet, later in life, they achieve a degree of success and believe their weirdness (including enthusiasm for technology and fantasy) is indicative of a superior, more objective and open-minded, perspective. Nonetheless, even in the seemingly innocuous realm of geek clothing and presentation, bias and privilege can be found.
I speak of hackers, nerds, and fans as types of geeks: “To be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement” (McArthur, 2009, p. 62). One can “geek out” about most any topic, though the term is most strongly associated with technical and online interests. Fans, for example, are geeks who are enthusiastic about fiction and music. Hackers enjoy exploring and building technical systems. And nerds love learning.
Following my sources, I use these terms almost interchangeably, though they have distinct histories and meanings (Coleman, 2014; Dunbar-Hester, 2014; Sugarbaker, 1998). For instance, hacker was first defined in MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club dictionary five decades ago as someone who employed an ill-advised but playful technique (Samson, 1959). The word also appeared in the “Jargon File,” a collection of computer-related lingo started in 1975 and which received its greatest popular attention under the editorship of Eric Raymond (1991a), who also published it as The New Hacker’s Dictionary. Raymond is most well-known for helping found and popularize the open source movement—although this is being overshadowed by his reputation as a neo-pagan “gun-toting libertarian” and author of a controversial blog (Raymond, 1997, 2016b).
Geeks tend to be self-documenting, as seen in the “Jargon File,” early Internet FAQs, and contemporary wikis (???). The Geek Feminism (GF) wiki and blog were established in 2008 and 2009 and follow this tradition by documenting and applying feminist-related concepts to notable events. GF’s founder, Alex Bayley (better known as “Skud” (2012)), wrote that “our main tactic is to document things.” Skud is a long time “open stuff” contributor and her path to GF included a pair of widely read essays about being a geek woman; she was also one of the first geeks to question the merits of meritocracy (Skud, 1998, 2000, 2009, 2011). Today, the GF blog and wiki have about a dozen active contributors and the wiki describes itself as being “about women in a range of geeky cultures/communities/activities” (Feminism, 2015a).
At the same time as Skud’s early reflections, scholars began to challenge the geek stereotype by considering the identity and practices of girls (Bucholtz, 1999) and the issues of masculinity and race (Eglash, 2002; Kendall, 2002). Linguist Mary Bucholtz (2002) used the discussions of Skud’s essays to define geek feminism as one that is committed to both feminist concerns and geek enthusiasms. In turn, in 2008, Skud adopted this term herself when she established the GF wiki; the next year she started its blog as a “dedicated feminist space to talk about feminism and feminists in geekdom” (Feminism, 2009). Other notable projects followed, often with overlapping membership. The Ada Initiative (“About us,” 2012) was “a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing participation of women in open technology and culture.” The online and print publication Model View Culture (MVC) seeks to “present compelling cultural and social critique, highlight the work and achievement of diverse communities in tech, and explore the use of technology for social justice” (Kane, 2015). I refer to those affiliated with these activities as “geek feminists”—and reserve “GF” for the wiki and blog.
Although privilege has become a much discussed issue in the twenty-first century, the notion of privilege first arose in the context of class and racism in America at the beginning of the twentieth. In 1920, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1920/2005) observed how “the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.” In 1935, he further noted that whiteness functioned to divide the interests of the working class against itself: that low-paid white laborers received a “public and psychological wage” for their complicity in inequity. Whites were given access to public functions, parks, and good schools; they populated the ranks of the police and could participate in civil society. And although the latter “had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them” (Du Bois, 1935/1995, pp. 700–701).
Decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) responded to those who asked him to delay and temper (nonviolent) protests for civil rights. In a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he responded that the work could not be delayed because, “lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Although King’s usage of privilege was more general, in 1967 socialist writers Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen (1967/2011, pp. 149–150) returned to the class consciousness of Du Bois, amplifying and repeating his concern in such a way as to present white privilege as an agreement between the U.S. ruling class and the “misleaders” of American labor. They wrote that in exchange for helping “conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force,” white workers would receive “the material and spiritual privileges befitting” their “white skin.”
Du Bois’ notion, now wedded to the term privilege, was extended and popularized by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh (1988/1990) shared that in her role as a feminist and educator she “realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.” This insight led her to consider her own “unearned skin privilege.” She spoke of privilege as something that is conferred by birth or luck. As such, it is an unearned power (to dominate) rather than an earned strength. She also distinguished between illicit privileges (like being able to ignore the perspectives of the less powerful) and those that everyone should enjoy (like non-discrimination when buying a home). McIntosh then enumerated fifty “daily effects of white privilege,” including being able to “turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
In addition to the confessional format of her essay, it was influential for its (1) use of metaphor (“like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions”), (2) recognition that privileges of color, class, and gender are “intricately intertwined” (now spoken of as “intersectionalism”), and (3) linking it to “the myth of meritocracy.” On the latter point, she claimed that because of privilege, “this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.” Additionally, McIntosh’s (1988/1990) insight was prompted by comparisons: although she lacked male gender privileges, she possessed racial privileges. As she more recently said, “I believe that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life” and that privilege “changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do” (Rothman & McIntosh, 2014, para. 15).
As McIntosh’s essay became widely known, other scholars and educators reflected on how to extend and apply the work. Lewis Gordon (2004, p. 175) argued that the most important of McIntosh’s privileges were actually human rights and “as such, the term ‘privilege’ runs counter to their normative import since such rights are by definition imperatives that apply to and for all human beings.” Lawrence Blum (2008) offered a mild critique via additional distinctions. He thought it was useful to distinguish between a spared injustice (a harm avoided), unjust enrichment (benefiting from harm to others), and non-injustice-related privileges (benefits without harm). Blum’s other concerns about privilege included “its inadequate exploration of the actual structures of racial inequality, its tendency to deny or downplay differences in the historical and current experiences of the major racial groups, and its overly narrow implied political project that omits many ways that White people can contribute meaningfully to the cause of racial justice” (p. 320). This latter point has been echoed by others. Andrea Smith (2013, p. 265) argued that confessions of privilege lacks transformative power. Although the ritual of confession temporarily grants those with little privilege the ability to judge the powerful, “Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered… Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.” (The GF wiki refers to this as “Oppression Olympics” (Feminism, 2015b).) Instead of such rituals, Smith argued for social transformation and political movement-building. This point was further echoed by a collective of teachers (Jensmire et al., 2013), and the challenges of teaching about privilege was the topic of an edited collection in the same year (Case, 2013).
McIntosh’s work has been translated into the geeky domain, including Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014a, 2014b) essay “Playing with Privilege: The Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male”—same last name, but no relation. A video in which prominent male geeks read from “Playing with Privilege” was featured on Anita Sarkeesian’s (2014) Feminist Frequency YouTube channel, for which Jonathan McIntosh is a producer. Science fiction author and feminist John Scalzi (2012) wanted to communicate the effects of unearned advantage “without invoking the dreaded word ‘privilege’.” Scalzi wrote that it is not that the word is incorrect, but that it is not a word that geeks are familiar with. But they do know video games, and Scalzi explained that being a straight white male is like “the lowest difficulty setting there is”: opponents are easier to defeat, quests are shorter, and one can gain extra powers more easily. Of course, “You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting”; it is just the easiest setting to win on. “The player who plays on the ‘Gay Minority Female’ setting? Hardcore.” Scholar Lisa Nakamura (2012) agreed, while also noting that Scalzi’s “white geek masculinity” permitted his message to be heard beyond that of women raising the same concern, including Aisha Tyler, a female gamer of color. Ironically, Scalzi, as a critic, is playing on a lower difficulty setting—something he would likely acknowledge. Yet, even those playing on lowest difficulty setting will no doubt have encountered difficulties in life. A decade before the Silver discourse, comic book artist Bary Deutsch (2004), creator “The Male Privilege Checklist,” explained that “being privileged does not mean that men do not work hard, do not suffer. In many cases—from a boy being bullied in school, to soldiers selecting male civilians to be executed, to male workers dying of exposure to unsafe chemicals—the sexist society that maintains male privilege also immeasurably harms boys and men.” Nonetheless, men typically do experience advantages by virtue of their gender, including “the privilege of being oblivious to privilege.”
In December 2014, Scott Aaronson (2014), a computer scientist at MIT, posted an entry to his blog about the “sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus.” MIT found that Lewin had harassed students of an online course, and it took the step of removing recordings of his lectures from MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW). Little was known about the harassment and much of the initial discussion focused on the wisdom of removing Lewin’s famed lectures. (Details of Lewin’s abuses would be more fully revealed by a victim a month later (Straumsheim, 2015).) Although Aaronson believed the charges were “extremely serious” and that Lewin should “be treated as harshly as he deserves,” he believed that depriving the world of Lewin’s lectures would be “a tough call” even if Lewin “had gone on a murder spree.” Over 500 comments followed this post in the next few weeks.
One of those comments charged that Aaronson’s post was callous. Anand Sarwate (2014), an electrical engineer at Rutgers, claimed that “ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege.” Subsequently, Aaronson wrote that “much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ – my privilege! – is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.” Aaronson explained that “given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their ‘male privilege’ is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.” He confessed that for much of his life, especially during his adolescence, he was deeply lonely and anxious: “I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified.” He was terrified that his sexual interest in women might cause him to be “scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.”
This exchange prompted hundreds of posts on geeky discussion sites Reddit and Metafilter (alecco, 2014; octorok, 2014); it also revealed two difficulties with challenging privilege: comparison and defensiveness. In a better world, the sharing of suffering would lead people to be more compassionate, as sometimes happens, but in many cases the opposite can happen, such as when “the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible” (Smith, 2013, p. 265). The inherent hazard with the notion of privilege is that it is relative, leading to unproductive and alienating comparisons at the individual level. Also, the imputation of privilege is often expressed as a personal challenge and taken as a personal insult—even if the greater concern is about structural inequities. In this case, Aaronson wrote of the “sad news” that the public was losing Lewin’s instructional videos. Comparatively little was said about the welfare of the victims.
It is unfortunate that it is often easier to speak about what is visible (Lewin and his videos) rather than what is not (the victims). It is also human to more readily see the world from the perspective of those most similar to one’s self. Yet the imputation of privilege often pushes this insight farther away. Consider an alternative critique: “Your position within a larger social structure (e.g., race, gender, class, and education) is preventing you from appreciating a (less fortunate) person’s perspective.” This can then be followed by specifics: “How do you imagine Lewin’s victims would view MIT maintaining the videos?” Such a statement might have been less likely to prompt Aaronson to “get off the train.”
My rephrasing of the privilege critique above is not intended as a tone argument, which can be used to derail a substantive conversation (Feminism, 2014b). Rather, I want to stress the substance of the privilege critique: to manifest structural inequities and their specific consequences rather than make personal insults. This is why Scalzi’s likening of “the dreaded word ‘privilege’” to a video game’s difficulty setting is useful. This is a type of game readily understood by the geek, and it is a metaphor that is less likely to arouse personal defensiveness and the unfruitful comparison of suffering. It places focus on the inequities of the game rather than the circumstances of the player.
Beyond the general difficulties of comparison and defensiveness, there is also the specific issue of geek insecurity. Feminist author Laurie Penny (2014) responded in the New Statesman that as a nerdy teenager she had also been terrified of the opposite sex and of her desires known. And “unlike Aaronson, I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way.” Arthur Chu (2015), a popular geek blogger and former Jeopardy champion, sympathized with Aaronson’s feelings: “I’ve felt a lot of those feelings and, more importantly, I’ve known my share of guys who were that bad off.” But Chu noted that although Aaronson’s pain “came from things that happened inside his head,” many women also faced being “harassed and groped by men in the tech world.” The advice columnist Dr. Nerdlove (2015) feared that by “mythologizing the nerd as downtrodden and powerless,” nerds end up treating others badly, “ironically enough, in much the same way that the jocks and bullies act towards us.” Importantly, geekdom’s resistance to this critique likely arises from seeing itself as different from the mainstream: “We’ve been rejecting what the world thought about us for so long that we’re unwilling to see that criticism isn’t necessarily an insult and that sometimes they’re right and we’re wrong.”
Yet, Aaronson was not without supporters. Readers appreciated his sharing of vulnerability, and the blogger “Scott Alexander” (2015), a pseudonym, wrote a thirteen-thousand word defense of Aaronson. Given how poorly online conversations about such things typically go, this was a remarkably civil and productive conversation, which underscored an important insight articulated by Deutsch (2004): the title of the Metafilter thread was that “Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer” (octorok, 2014).
Unlike the messy world of teenage insecurities, the computer is thought to be objective: You can prove that your code runs and that it runs faster than the alternatives. The Internet was built by engineers under the famous credo that “rough consensus and running code” is preferred to kings and even democratic governance (???; Clark, 1992, p. 19). Like many geeks, Meredith Patterson (2014), is fond of this “constructivist” mentality, as she calls it, which is inherent to programming: “Some programmers can leave constructivism at the office, but hackers live and breathe it.” Patterson, a hacker and science fiction author, considers both brogrammers and feminists to be incursions that must be repulsed: concerns about identity, bias, and privilege should not be foregrounded at the expense of geek culture’s constructivist and “weird nerd” values.
According to Patterson, her people, the weird (or outsider) nerds, have ample reason to fear incursions from the mainstream because their “own lived experience yields proof after proof that they, and their outsider norms, will be first against the wall when the popular kids come.” When cool nerds and brogrammers arrive, weird nerd acceptance is threatened. Note that Patterson has invoked the superiority of geek constructivism to underscore a geek insecurity about popular kids. Her concern parallels Silver’s (2014) distinctions between outsider weird nerds and being “bro-y”, and contrasts with Tufekci’s (2014) opposite concern that the “many women—and men—who don’t fit into the ‘bunch of weird nerds’ culture will leave the field.” More importantly for Patterson, geek feminists threaten the community and its constructivism with distractions of privilege and bias. “Code is no respecter of persons. Your code makes you great, not the other way around.” To foreground feminist concerns is excessive because “we want our decision procedures to consider identity when contextually appropriate … but not when the distinctions it introduces only muddy the waters, or worse, refocus problem-solving effort away from the roots of those problems” (Patterson, 2014).
For Patterson, geekdom had proven to be a safe sanctuary from the challenges of “growing up with autism.” This is a space where “we fit in a little better without having to try so hard.” Correspondingly, nobody every told her “no girls allowed” (Patterson, 2013). Unlike what she has faced for being autistic, her experiences of gender bias have been unnoticed, rare, or easily overcome. In a rare instance of gender discrimination, Patterson only learned of it much later. Unbeknown to Patterson, someone had dismissed her technical proposal because of her gender; she subsequently implemented the idea herself. When she later learned of the discrimination, “I literally doubled over laughing at how nonplussed he must have been to see it not only implemented, but implemented to ‘rousing success.’” This is a story of geek triumphalism: Patterson’s geekiness rendered her immune to slights, and her code allowed her to overcome a bigot. Other women have told Patterson that her experiences of a welcoming geekdom are not typical. She conceded that this may be true, but that “maybe other women would have a better time of things if they tried walking around in my shoes for once” (Patterson, 2013).
Eric Raymond (2015), who wrote of geekdom as a welcoming meritocracy twenty-five years earlier, supported Patterson’s position. He, too, has spoken of overcoming early challenges: as “a kid with cerebral palsy … I had to learn NOT TO GIVE A SHIT what people thought of my ‘otherness’ – how to be stronger than the social pressure” (Raymond, 2016a). With respect to geek feminists, Raymond believed that although there is room to “make the hacker culture and the civilization it serves a better place,” those who speak of privilege and patriarchy use these terms as “thin rationalizations over bullying, dominance games, and an endless scream of monkey rage.” Instead, those who would criticize must first demonstrate their technical chops.
If we go back to Raymond’s (1991b) “Jargon File,” we can see earlier evidence of presumed superiority in the definitions of terms used for social status. Hacking is said to be a meritocracy, topped by the alpha geek, wizard, or “true-hacker”—a claim which I think is naive (???). Additionally, hackers are said to “dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for appearance”—so much so that some might “neglect personal hygiene” and “quit a job rather than conform to dress codes.” Sandals, jeans, and t-shirts are staples of the hacker wardrobe. Such a culture does seem more focused on substantive merit, and it may be more accommodating to those with sensory sensitivities, like autistics. This “low tolerance” for matters of appearance is said to even extend beyond long hair and bare feet towards a purported blindness of gender and color: “after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more” (Raymond, 1991b).
Patterson and Raymond are proponents of geek triumphalism: both found a home where their differences were thought to be valuable, or at least irrelevant. They believe their intelligence, unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy), and differences make them more objective, meritocratic, and open minded. Accordingly, claims of bias and privilege in geekdom are thought to be disproportionate, divisive, and a distraction from the methods of constructivist meritocracy. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to find instances of privilege and bias in geekdom, including in the very thing which is thought to signal that geeks are better: geek idiosyncrasy.
The shift from geek insecurity to superiority is manifest in the hacker “Jargon File”—which Raymond maintained for much of its life. Whereas poor dress and hygiene can signal superiority, from the hacker’s perspective, conventional attire is a mark of inferiority.
<suit> n. 1. Ugly and uncomfortable “business clothing” often worn by non-hackers. Invariably worn with a “tie”, a strangulation device which partially cuts off the blood supply to the brain. It is thought that this explains much about the behavior of suit-wearers.
2. A person who habitually wears suits, as distinct from a techie or hacker.
See <loser>, <burble> and <brain-damaged>. (Raymond, 1991b)
In a series of famous essays among geeks, programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham (2003, 2004a, 2004b) wrote about the identity and behavior of hackers and nerds. In a five thousand word essay on “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Graham explained that young nerds fail to appreciate that being popular takes effort.
Teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular. Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. (Graham, 2003)
Instead, nerds spend their time learning to make great things, like designing rockets, writing well, and programming computers. This preference, combined with the uninspiring and prison-like environment of school leads to a barbaric culture in which nerds fair poorly. However, after leaving school, the mature nerd can find like-minded peers with whom they can make great things and for which society amply rewards them.
Graham concluded that hackers’ desire to focus on interesting work and to be thought smart was so strong that “sometimes young programmers notice the eccentricities of eminent hackers and decide to adopt some of their own in order to seem smarter.” I suspect geek communities are prone to the “The Red Sneakers Effect,” meaning that status and competence can be communicated via signals of nonconformity, like idiosyncratic shoes (Bellezza, Gino, & Keinan, 2013). Sometimes, geek idiosyncrasy is even recognized as competence by the mainstream, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s penchant for hoodies.
However, the interpretation of these idiosyncrasies is gendered and raced. Although Zuckerberg’s hoodie has been argued to be “savvy, not snotty” (Nugent, 2012), hoodies worn by young black men prompt a different debate about thuggishness and fear (Givhan, 2012). Raymond’s definitions of “hackers” and “suits” presume male geeks; yet, one can imagine that sloppy or unhygienic women are not viewed as charitably as their male counterparts are. Finally, consider the fit of the innocuous seeming t-shirt. As unconventional as geeks may be relative to the mainstream, geeks have their own conventions and norms. In geekdom, the T-shirt (emblazoned with a logo) serves to identify (1) one’s divergence from mainstream norms (e.g., “suits”) and (2) one’s alignment with a specific interest (e.g., via the logo of a software project, conference, or fandom). As the GF wiki documents, such T-shirts are often given as event “schwag” (free promotional items) and often tailored for men, which creates a double-bind for women. If women choose not to wear the T-shirt, they might not be seen as fully geek or as a team player. Wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt also presents an unpleasant choice to women: “wear a too-small shirt, emphasizing the breasts, or wear an ill-fitting straight-cut shirt,” both of which “can compound any discomfort they might already feel at being in a minority” (Feminism, 2014a).
In a field historically dominated by men, it is not surprising that t-shirt sizes were, historically, tailored for men. I do not mean to imply that this is an act of intentional, overt sexism. Yet, this androcentrism is the manifestation of a bias and male historical privilege, even if relatively slight. Even so, t-shirt fit can be one of many signals, from the slight to the overt, which implies that already marginal identities are unwelcome, or at least atypical. (The GF wiki recommends that shirts be offered in women-friendly styles, that attendees preregister their shirt size so they are guaranteed a good fit, or that organizers offer alternative schwag.)
You might say that geeks are late to feminism. Geek feminists’ challenging of privilege and naive claims of meritocracy is occurring well after these critiques first emerged. Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014b) “Playing with Privilege” appeared a quarter of a century after Peggy McIntosh’s (1988/1990) “Invisible Knapsack.” Scholars have since moved on to describing weaknesses and limitations of the critique itself, as well as raising intersectional concerns of race, sexuality, gender expression, and class. Nonetheless, this is an important moment for geek culture. Geek feminism is making significant inroads into a historically naive and resistant culture; this is happening at the same time that geek culture is becoming more mainstream—McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s (2014) YouTube video has over a million views.
Despite this lag between academic feminism and applied feminism, it is important to understand how feminist critique is received; in this case, what are the reasons for geek resistance to the privilege critique? In addition to the more general issue of comparison and defensiveness, geekdom has its own impediments. Geek identity is informed by the trope of geek triumphalism: early insecurity is superseded by a sense of superiority. Geeks’ intelligence, unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy), and idiosyncratic dress were once targets of ridicule, leading triumphant geeks to believe they have no privilege. These characteristics, later in life, become sources of success and pride, leading the same geeks to think they are beyond bias. I show, however, that this belief is undercut by the simple case of t-shirt fit, which can embody and perpetuate unintended bias, a bias that most male geeks have the privilege of not considering.
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Film scholars Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles (2012) refer to the “simulated ethnicity” of geeks as part of “geek melodrama,” though, surprisingly, do not consider Revenge of the Nerds in their analysis.↩
Although the film’s diversity was of tokenized stereotypes, it was a rare and mostly positive representation in the mainstream. Even so, Lewis’ sex with a popular cheerleader, by leading her to think he was her boyfriend in disguise, rightfully complicates some geeks’ appreciation for the movie.↩